KABUL: Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who still wields considerable influence in today’s Afghanistan despite being out of office for four years, said on Thursday he welcomes the entry of five Taliban leaders who were freed from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2014 into peace negotiations.
Karzai, who led the country from 2001-2014, also said he now supports talks between the Taliban and the United States but only as a step toward direct talks between the insurgents and a negotiating team representing Afghans from across society.
He spoke to The Associated Press on the grounds of the presidential palace, where he lives with his young family and meets regularly with tribal leaders, Afghan government officials and foreign notables. Just last week the US ambassador to Afghanistan stopped by Karzai’s office. He also has met with Washington’s new peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Since Khalilzad’s appointment last month, peace efforts have accelerated.
The five former Guantanamo Taliban detainees have come out of the shadows to join the insurgent group’s political office in Qatar where they will be involved in peace negotiations.
The co-founder of the Taliban movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was released from a Pakistani jail where he had been since his arrest in 2010 in a joint US and Pakistan operation.
Baradar was reportedly arrested after seeking to start peace talks with Karzai without Pakistan’s involvement. In the interview, Karzai accused both the US and Pakistan of foiling talks with Baradar at the time. He also said he made repeated attempts to gain Baradar’s release, but his efforts were thwarted by both the US and Pakistan.
Karzai’s final term in power was marked by a prickly relationship with the United States. Karzai said he still has reservations about Washington’s intentions as it seeks to find a negotiated exit to 17 years of war, but welcomed Khalilzad in the role of peace maker.
“I believe he has all the right tools to conduct this if he is given freedom by the US government to act toward peace and peace building in Afghanistan,” he said.
Karzai has a history with Khalilzad, who was US President George Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan following the 2001 collapse of the Taliban-ruled government. Khalilzad, who later served as the US ambassador, was a strong proponent of Karzai for president of the first post-Taliban government.
An opponent of direct US talks with the Taliban when he was Afghanistan’s president, Karzai now sees it as a necessity because the Taliban today control large swaths of the country.
In a report released on Thursday, Washington’s own Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the government has ceded even more territory to insurgents and now controls just over 50 per cent of the country.
“The Taliban are Afghans and no doubt they control a great part of Afghan territory and that’s a fact of life,” said Karzai.
“Afghanistan and the rest of the world must live with that, therefore a negotiation with them is necessary and good. Let the Americans talk to them.”
Karzai spelled out the conditions he said he laid out “with clarity” for many US officials who have made a visit to his office.
Foremost among them is a warning to Washington against making deals with Pakistan.
“We will in an extremely forceful way oppose any deals between the US and Pakistan on Afghanistan and Afghan destiny,” said Karzai adding that peace negotiations also need to involve regional powers, most notably Russia and China as well as neighbors including Iran.
“Afghans just want peace and a sovereign country and they want to be left alone to their own, to make a living and to do better in their lives,” he said.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2018